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25,000 steelhead released in Tokul Hatchery break-in near Snoqualmie

Tokul Creek Hatchery Manager Darin Combs examines fish fry in this file photo. Thousands of fry were released by vandals last Tuesday, May 13, just hours before the fish were scheduled to be trucked to eastern Washington. - Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Tokul Creek Hatchery Manager Darin Combs examines fish fry in this file photo. Thousands of fry were released by vandals last Tuesday, May 13, just hours before the fish were scheduled to be trucked to eastern Washington.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

By the early morning of Tuesday, May 13, 25,000 hatchery-raised juvenile steelhead had, against Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) rules, joined the wild fish migration down the Snoqualmie River. The Tokul Creek Hatchery fish were intended for release in eastern Washington lakes.

Instead, vandals released them just hours before they were to be trucked away.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a day like yesterday,” said Tokul Creek Hatchery manager Darin Combs, in a phone call to the Record on Wednesday. Although people have broken into the hatchery in the past, to steal equipment, he said no one had ever released fish before.

Releasing the fish may have been the perpetrators’ only goal, though, since staff said nothing was stolen, and the only property damage was several cut padlocks securing the steelhead pond.

“Some time during the late hours of either Monday night or early hours of Tuesday morning, somebody accessed the secure pond, which is behind the chain link fence and barbed wire… and pulled the screens,” said Kelly Cunningham, a WDFW deputy assistant director in the fish program.

An estimated 50,000 juvenile Chambers Creek steelhead were in the pond, and roughly half of them swam out into the river by the time hatchery staff discovered the missing screens early Tuesday.

Because of the limited scope of the break-in, and the timing — the smolt would have been transported away later that same day —Combs said, “It seemed like the person knew what they were doing, and their intent was to release fish.”

The environmental impact of the release will be unknown for about two years, because the steelhead spend a year at sea before returning the following fall to spawn. In a typical year, the return is about 1 percent Combs said, adding, “It’s something that may come back in a couple of years. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Also, this release was quite small. Tokul Creek usually releases six times that many fish, 150,000, each spring. All together, the WDFW hatcheries release about 750,000 Chambers Creek steelhead into local rivers annually, but none of them will this year, as part of a department effort to avoid a lawsuit.

The suit, filed March 31 by the Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy, claims the state’s hatchery programs not only don’t improve the numbers of wild fish in the area, but also have contributed to the population decline of the state’s wild steelhead, listed as an endangered species since 2007.

In response, WDFW began negotiating with the Conservancy, and on April 25, announced the terms of the settlement. Only the Skykomish River would have a steelhead release this spring, a department press release stated, and “No early winter steelhead will be released into other Puget Sound rivers in 2014.”

While the Conservancy will not sue the department for the next two and a half years, the WDFW agrees to not release any Chambers Creek steelhead into local rivers until the National Marine Fisheries Service completes its ongoing review of the department’s hatcheries management plans.

Most of this year’s ready-to-release steelhead will go to other parts of the state, in areas “functionally isolated” from Puget Sound waters,  Cunningham said, but there are still two more generations of steelhead growing in department hatcheries.

“We have eggs on station, we’ve also got juvenile fish on station,” he said. “We’ve got the next two cycles of brood on station right now, and our intent is to have those permits on hand to release those fish next year.”

Meanwhile, local fishermen can anticipate a much different winter steelhead season this year. The local effect has led some to speculate that the break-in Tuesday is in some way related to the lawsuit settlement.

“The speculation isn’t ours,” Cunningham said, speaking for the department.

However, WDFW is taking precautions at all steelhead hatcheries because of the break-in. In addition to some infrastructure changes, security guards now patrol the grounds of Tokul Creek Hatchery, plus the steelhead hatcheries in Deming, Marblemount and Darrington, at night.

The department’s own law enforcement staff is investigating the incident, and Cunningham said they expect to hold someone accountable. He wasn’t sure  which criminal charges the perpetrators might face, but felt that vandalism and burglary were both possible. “We are talking about a state property,” he said.

Visitors to the hatchery, though, aren’t likely to notice a big change in access, Cunningham added.

“The hatcheries are open to public. In fact at Tokul Creek during steelhead season, we have a lot of people accessing the water from fishery property.”

Tokul Creek Hatchery is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

 

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